There is nothing new under the sun…turn, turn, turn

When choice isn’t – how Big Data, and the highest bidder, could “guide” you

I haven’t even finished reading an article and I already want to share something out of it.

Phil Baumann shared an article by Evgeny Morozov that, among other things, notes that Silicon Valley is not subject to the same critical analysis that is applied to, say, the oil industry. As I said, I’m still reading the article, but I was struck by Morozov’s futuristic “what if” buried within…which shows how a decision that you would presumably make independently can actually be guided behind the scenes.

Suppose you want to become a vegetarian. So you go to Facebook and use its Graph Search feature to search for the favorite vegetarian restaurants of all your friends who live nearby. Facebook understands that you are considering an important decision that will affect several industries: great news for the tofu industry but bad news for the meat section of your local supermarket.

Facebook would be silly not to profit from this knowledge – so it organizes a real-time ad auction to see whether the meat industry wants you more than the tofu industry.

To this point, there’s nothing really new here. The meat industry and the tofu industry have been battling for our minds – and wallets – for years. But now that you have an individual Facebook account, tied to a Google or Apple phone that you carry with you all the time, that battle can be carried out on an individual, personal level. Morozov assumes that the meat industry won the ad auction, and magical things begin to happen.

[Y]ou enter your local supermarket and your smartphone shows that the meat section offers you a discount of 20%. The following day, as you pass by the local steak house, your phone buzzes again: you’ve got another discount offer.

In the past, I (and other) have spoken of the ideal form of advertising as one that doesn’t feel like advertising at all, since it provides you with the information that you want. But what if you only get SOME of the information you want…and the party that didn’t pony up the money is shut out? Then something like this could happen:

After a week of deliberation – and lots of cheap meat — you decide that vegetarianism is not your thing. Case closed.

Of course, had the tofu industry won the ad auction, things might have gone in the opposite direction.

Now in and of itself, this would not be a problem – provided that the whole deal was done transparently. “Transparency” is a word that is often preached as the foundation of social interaction – I should be transparent when sharing my likes and dislikes with Facebook, Google, and the rest. But the companies that use my data, and in some cases own my data, are not always all that transparent themselves when saying how that data is used.

My quick thoughts – let me get back to reading the article.


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